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Do I Need a Brand or a Visual Identity?

Sometimes when people come to us for “branding,” I quickly ascertain that what they really mean is an updated “visual identity.”

“So, you’re looking for help integrating your vision, competitive positioning, audience messaging, market perception and corporate culture,” I might ask. Just as often they respond, “I just need an update to our logo, collateral templates, PowerPoint, web design, etc.” For many, the visual manifestations of a brand are “The Brand.”

While I’ve spent more time blogging about the strategic side of branding, the visual identity or more accurately,  the “visual brand identity” can be a powerful tool and competitive advantage in its own right. The visual brand identity is where strategy becomes tangible.

To put visual brand identity in context, my first job out of art school was as part of a team working on the visual brand for a large business, which took 16 months to complete. This was in the 80’s, when fonts were kerned and leaded with precision, logos were hand inked on mylar and application to stationery, signage, collateral, vehicles, etc. was carefully measured and scrupulously documented in brand books as thick as a novel by Melville.

These days, entire technologies have come and gone in less time. The tools are better and the public, by and large, is more visually literate. Yet, visual brand identity is still a design strategy and a craft that far exceeds facility with Adobe Photoshop.

Today, these are some of the questions clients should ask of branding and design professionals:

  • How much time and effort is required to create a compelling visual brand identity in our “need it yesterday” business culture?
  • What is the purpose and function of a visual brand identity for our business?
  • How can visual design be used to differentiate? To represent the brand experience? To motivate action?
  • And a general question: How does the “visual” brand identity relate to “The Brand?” Thus, you might ask, “why do I need one?”

I have always viewed the visual brand identity as “the icing on the brand cake.” By itself, the cake has substance, but it’s a bit dry. By itself, the icing is too sweet, but layered onto the cake it takes a form that is at once pleasing to the eye, has positive associations and leaves you wanting more.

Since we recently launched the new raincastle.com website, and updated all our visual identity materials, the quality of our new business leads has tangibly improved. All of our most recent leads have commented on how our visual idenity, built around the concept EXPERIENCE MATTERS, attracted them to our content and gave them the “confidence to pick up the phone and call, or fill out a web form. (Below, the centerpiece of our visual brand identity).




You might think that a company almost a century old and so large to have coined the nickname Big Blue, could be a pretty stodgy brand. But the IBM Brand is built on a fundamental pillar or “Brand Ideal” of improving society,” as evidenced by their tagline, Building a Smarter Planet.” By baking their cake with ingredients of human aspiration, endless possibility, teamwork and intelligence, the perfect icing is inevitable.

A good brand strategy can be enhanced exponentially in the hands of a great designer to yield a memorable visual brand that evolves and grows over time and stands for the values and persona of the organization it represents. Such is the case with IBM (although the website is beginning to look a bit shopworn). The icons below are a tiny sample of a visual system that permeates the web, event graphics, collateral and more.



The answer to the question, “Do I Need a Brand or a Visual Identity,” is yes and yes. “The Brand” provides the strategic and rational underpinnings every business needs to succeed. The visual brand identity provides the emotional resonance that motivates the desired customer and employee behavior and can create a sustained positive association. How much effort, time and money you spend are decisions unique to every business.